George Papandreou

The latest in the World Leaders Forum The annual Silver Lecture at SIPA featured former Prime Minister of Greece George Papandreou, who served a turbulent term from October 2009 until his resignation in November 2011.  Last night in the Altschul Auditorium, Bwog’s resident Greek Alexandra Svokos got frustrated.

The last time I asked my grandfather, who lives in Piraeus (featured in Plato’s Symposium!), how everything was, he responded “not too bad, there are fewer people protesting now.”  Like any Greek studying economics, I’m angry at a lot of people in the fatherland–especially those directly involved in the economy–and Papandreou is unlucky enough to be at the front.  Papandreou did not drive Greece into the mud.  He was the one who hopped in the driver’s seat and said “I think we’re stuck.”  Rather than pushing the country out of the ditch, though, he kept hitting the gas pedal and hoping this time we’d move.

Papandreou opened with anecdotes about Greece as they emerged from dictatorship in ’74.  He emphasized his family’s involvement–his father was prime minister in the 80s and 90s and his grandfather served the same position before the junta.  This set up a theme of fighting for democracy.  He discussed a need to understand each other and be patient. Papandreou believes that Greece remained in crisis for so long because of prejudices and xenophobia across Europe; Greece needs to fight for dignity and respect.

Papandreou addressed three “myths” about the Euro Crisis. First, Greece needed reform in addition to austerity measures.  Next, this was not a “lazy” Greek problem, but a European problem.  “Wouldn’t it be easy if zorba dancing and ouzo drinking was the problem?”  Finally, Papandreou maintained that Greece has been living up to its promises and that the nation is now in better condition than it’s been “since joining the European Union” — that sure is some pointed wording.

He ended his speech with “rousing” rhetoric and sat for questions.  The audience made it clear they were not going to let Papandreou get away with a vague speech full of buzzwords tied up with shining idea of democracy.  A fellow Greek man said he was “puzzled why people here are treating you so well … You only talk about reform after 2008, but something went terribly wrong in Greece from 1974-2008.”  He mentioned that Papandreou presented himself as part of a Greek dynasty, which is troubling.  Finally: “Can’t you tell us that we really screwed up? … We did something very wrong. We all took advantage of democracy, and you should acknowledge that.”  The audience heartily applauded.

Papandreou agreed that, “at different times,” Greece did “screw up … There was a lot of waste and there was a lot of corruption.”  Papandreou was criticized for calling out Greece for being full of corruption (“hey this car isn’t moving!”), but he said it because he wanted to change it.  His reforms included putting expenditures online for transparency, creating a series for deliberation, and picking people for public sector jobs based on merit.

However, Greece had to work on austerity and reform at the same time.  There were other complications: on entering the Euro, Greece was given subsidies on agriculture which allowed them to throw it away rather than export it.  Apparently this is also the Euro’s fault.  Regardless, “each one of us, in his or her own way, needs to take responsibility in moving forward.”  In response to his being part of a dynasty, Papandreou asserted that he has been democratically elected and brought up his ancestors’ roles in the nation’s history again.  “It’s a fight for democracy, not a royal dynasty.”  This, too, was met with applause.

The final question won for clever phrasing, with an international woman saying she wants to know what Papandreou would do if he were 20-years-old in Europe now.  She explained she is feeling pessimistic looking at politics because there’s a lot of great rhetoric and speeches–“like the one you just gave”–but there doesn’t seem to be much action.

Papandreou responded that this generation in Europe is in danger of becoming a “Lost Generation” due to high unemployment, and the continent needs to fix this.  Working on equal infrastructure throughout Europe–back to that idea that the Greece crisis was caused by xenophobia–would create jobs.  If he were in his 20s, he would organize to do more than protest: they must analyze what changes they would make and go about trying to implement them.  As a final note, he warned against violent uprisings, saying that “if you want change, you need to reach the hearts and minds of people” through discussion, dialogue, and thinking critically.

That’s sweet and all, but sometimes quick and smart action helps.